Botched government rollout leaves people in pain with no support
By Sue Dunlevy - published in The Australian - 17-08-2020
Exclusive: Australians dealing with chronic pain - including a 15 year old - have taken their own lives rather than live in pain after the botched introduction of restrictions to opioid medications.
From June 1 the government reduced the pack sizes of opioid medications to just ten tablets, banned repeat prescriptions and encouraged doctors to wean their patients off the drugs to reduce hospitalisations and deaths caused by the addictive drugs.
But patients and doctors say the inept roll out has caused untold misery with people left in pain and without support.
Patients and doctors say they got little warning, there was no advertising campaign or helpline and many people with chronic pain were given no alternative to help them cope.
More than 50,000 patients who had been using the medications for more than a year had to be referred to a pain specialist or alternative prescriber for clinical review.
Waiting lists for appointments with specialist pain clinics are over 12 months long and some patients were rapidly forced off the drugs, a practice that poses risks including more severe pain and neuropsychological effects.
“We had numerous people telling us about people they know that have suicided or intend to,” Pain Australia CEO Carol Bennett.
This included a 15 year old in a border town who took their own life because the doctor couldn’t prescribe due to the lockdown, she said.
The relative of one patient posted on Pain Australia’s Facebook site: “My dad killed himself. Living with pain with no prospect of relief was cited in his suicide note”.
Painaustralia CEO, Carol Bennett
More than 92 per cent of the 600 people who responded to a Pain Australia survey on the June 1 changes said the reforms had a negative impact on their lives.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners spokeswoman Dr Hester Williams said many doctors feared they would lose their medical registration if they kept prescribing the drugs.
Patients face increased out of pocket health expenses and are missing time from work now they have to see doctor once a month since repeat prescriptions were banned.
The survey found chronic pain patients also felt stigmatised and were upset they were being treated as if they were drug addicts.
Pain Australia is calling on the government to set up a helpline, introduce an educational campaign and implement the National Strategic Action Plan for Pain Management.
Ms Bennett last year helped lead a campaign to reduce opioid use in Australia and said while the intent of the new policy changes was good it had been badly implemented.
“It’s assumed that people using these medications are just addicted to them that they’re not useful that they shouldn’t be taking them. But if you talk to any pain specialist you know for some people these are going to be the only medication that is going to enable them to function properly,”’ she said.
Oxycodone is one of the opioids affected by the new rules. Picture Getty Images
It’s the second time the federal Department of Health has botched opioid policy.
Twelve months ago the Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy had to apologise to doctors treating terminally ill cancer patients after he accused them in a letter of overprescribing the drugs.
In fear of losing their medical registration doctors stopped giving the drugs to terminally ill patients who had to die in pain.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said it has consulted with peak medical groups about the changes and advised those in pain to go to the Pain Australia website for help.
“In recognition of the debilitating effects suboptimal pain relief has on mental health, the Australian Government has made a virtual clinic, MindSpot, available,” the department said.
This service provides an internet-delivered pain management program and helps people find local services.
“It is the responsibility of the prescribing doctor to determine whether it is clinically appropriate to supply their patient with a prescription for opioids,” the spokesman said.
Janine Monty, 45, lives with rheumatoid arthritis. She said when her opiod dose was reduced she could no longer sleep at night. Picture: Sean Davey
Canberra mum Janine Monty has dense bones and suffers intense pain from Rheumatoid arthritis and she’s tried cortisone shots, radiofrequency ablation therapy, exercise physiology, hydrotherapy, gym classes and had a spinal fusion but she still needs opioids.
After her opioid dose was cut to 15 mg she could no longer go to the gym or sleep at night.
“I’ve been stable on my opioids I’ve never abused them, they improve my quality of life they allow me to exercise, I run a part time business,” she said.
If you need help or support please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.